By Valerie Milano
Pasadena, CA (The Hollywood Times) 1/7/18 – THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE: AMERICAN CRIME STORY, one of the new TV season’s must-sees, was discussed at length by a distinguished panel of executives and talents at the 2018 FX TCA Winter Press Tour taking place on Saturday, January 6th, 2018 at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena. The nine-episode limited series is set to premiere on Wednesday, January 17th.
Present on the panel were award-winning executive producers Ryan Murphy, Nina Jacobson, and Brad Simpson along with executive producer Tom Rob Smith, who wrote the series episodes. Talents included Edgar Ramirez, who plays the starring role of Gianni Versace; Ricky Martin, who plays his long-time lover Antonio D’Amico; and Darren Criss, who plays his killer Andrew Cunanan. Maureen Orth, author of the book VULGAR FAVORS upon which the series was based, rounded out the panel.
The first audience member called upon questioned the term “assassination” since the crime against Versace did not appear to be political in nature or committed for profit, suggesting that “Even though he’s prominent, he’s just one of the people who was unfortunate enough to cross paths with a psychopath.”
Nina Jacobson responded that the rationale for the term had been to contrast killer Andrew Cunanan and victim Gianni Versace as destroyer and creator. In this analysis, Versace had the talent and work ethic to create from the inside out while Cunanan was an outside in person who wanted fame and fortune without having to work for it. Versace was authentic and honest whereas Cunanan wasn’t aware of even his own truth and became different people depending upon whom he was with.
Versace’s status as a gay man makes his murder more political. The way the police handled the crime is testament to this.
Ryan Murphy agreed with Jacobson’s assessment, saying of Cunanan, “This was someone who targeted people specifically to shame them and to out them and to have a form of payback for a life that he felt he could not live.” Tom Rob Smith added, “Once he [Cunanan] crossed a line and became a killer, he then started to kill to pursue ideas.”
A French-speaking questioner asked what the panel thought viewers would learn about Gianni Versace from the series that they didn’t already know. Edgar Ramirez said that Versace’s intimate family orientation might surprise people who knew of him only from his high-style House of Versace image. By all accounts, Versace was a rather shy individual who went to bed and woke up rather early! His demeanor was much more that of a craftsman than a larger-than-life celebrity.
Edgar Ramirez knew series co-stars Ricky Martin and Penelope Cruz, who plays Versace’s flamboyant sister Donatella, before the show was cast. Martin and Ramirez actually met at an Armani dinner!
All three actors were Ryan Murphy’s first choices and he did not even know they were already friends. So the Versace “family” was already in place even before the series was filmed!
Another questioner wondered why it seemed as if more time was devoted to Cunanan than Versace in the series. Brad Simpson said that this was because Cunanan was actually a spree killer with a total body count of five. He killed the people closest to him and then targeted Versace, the most famous fashion designer in America. The series creators wanted the whole story to be told and Cunanan and his crimes were obviously the common link.
Brad Simpson pointed out that the previous AMERICAN CRIME STORY series about the O.J. Simpson trial had also been an ensemble with O.J. as a supporting actor. FX decided NOT to use Cunanan’s name in the title of the Versace series so as not to elevate him to a place they didn’t want to put him.
The goals of the Gianni Versace show were very different than the ones for the O.J. Simpson show. The Versace series focuses much more upon the victims and what was taken from the world when all of them were killed.
Ryan Murphy appreciated that each of the ACS shows would have a different tonality (courtroom potboiler, manhunt thriller, etc.) He loved that the Versace show did not glamorize the subject matter, but instead revealed the ugliness of the homophobia underlying the murder the way the O.J. series had revealed the ugliness of sexism and racism.
Another questioner asked about the extent of the interaction between Cunanan and Versace prior to the murder. Maureen Orth said they had met around the time when Versace was designing some costumes for the San Francisco Opera. Andrew was seen riding around in a white convertible with Gianni and Antonio at least once. The extent of the relationship is not precisely know.
Tom Rob Smith insightfully pointed out that Versace was not just a person, but “looms over the series as a symbol of success.” Both he and Cunanan were gay and dealt with this in very different ways.
Versace tried to protect himself with his huge fashion empire and all its wealth and power. He also had the genuinely loving long-term relationship with D’Amico, a much younger mega-handsome model. All these signs of success unfortunately made him a target for envious and unstable people like Cunanan.
Another questioner asked about fact vs. fiction in the Versace series. Of course many of the events had to be reconstructed both in the book VULGAR FAVORS and the television script based upon it.
Darren Criss what it had been like to play a man like Andrew Cunanan. Criss replied, “Well, it either makes me a good actor or a shitty one! I can’t decide.” Criss, best known for his 180-degree different role as Blaine Anderson in FOX’S GLEE, was tapped by Ryan Murphy to play Cunanan after seeing Criss perform on Broadway in HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH.
Like Cunanan, Criss tried to disassociate himself from certain things while still empathizing to some extent with his subject. Criss feels sorrow for Versace’s family and friends now that the tragic events of 20 years ago are being brought up again in a “pop cultural affair.”
Maureen Orth added that Andrew Cunanan was often able to charm even people who knew he was an inveterate liar. He was quite erudite and could capture the interest of older and more sophisticated gay men he wanted as patrons because of it.
The next questioner pointed out that even a killer like Andrew Cunanan could not help but become humanized because the viewers spent so much time with him, unlike O.J. Simpson in the previous ACS series. Brad Simpson said that this was emblematic of a bigger rift in American culture and its fascination with true crime stories.
Tom Rob Smith emphasized that Cunanan had been handsome, brilliant, and very witty and could have had the world at his feet like Versace. He thought Andrew’s pathology was closer to that of a terrorist than a serial killer. Not able to create or accept anonymity in society, he chose to rip something down. In such cases we as a society really need to ask ourselves, “What has gone wrong?”
The last question for Maureen Orth and Tom Rob Smith was about whether anything had come to light since the publication of Maureen’s book about the Andrew Cunanan murders to change their perceptions of this rather enigmatic killer. Maureen said that her perception basically stayed the same. Tom said that Andrew “refused to be invisible” by going after an extremely visible person like Versace–and this is still of interest.
Many on the panel were glad that Versace had finally gotten his due as a cultural pioneer. Better late than never! Though this is the largest failed manhunt of all time, it remains difficult to find material about it.
There is a sad irony in the fact that Versace had already beaten death once right before he was gunned down. He built his own brand into a billion-dollar enterprise with style and flair before the age of 50. To know him is to love him, and viewers will have their chance to do just that for nine weeks after the series launches on January 17th!